"What is the past, after all, but a vast sheet of darkness in which a few moments, pricked apparently at random, shine?" So asks the narrator in the concluding sentence of "The Astronomer," one of John Updike’s short stories written in the early 1960s. Some forty years after writing that sentence, Updike has chosen, in a new novel published this year and called Gertrude and Claudius, to revisit a moment of past literary shining. The moment he revisits -- pricking the vast darkness of the past, perhaps at random, in order to do so -- is Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet. Although Hamlet is an enduring touchstone of English-language drama and literature, it does not, on the face of things, seem a natural choice of subject matter for John Updike.
Updike may well be "the model of the twentieth-century American man of letters," as Nicholson Baker calls him in U & I: A True Story. (From his wonderfully funny and also very perceptive book I have quite cheerfully stolen my own title.) Baker adds that Updike is also "my favorite living writer." But Updike, whether "model" or "favorite," is not therefore also among the most popular American writers, or at least not in the academy. This is so even though (or maybe because?) his books -- surprisingly frequently, given their very evident "literary-ness" -- can often be found ensconced on the middle rungs of New York Times Book Review bestsellerdom.
In his earliest work, Updike seemed a light, perhaps overly mannered prose stylist. He might almost have been sent from Central Casting to represent the so-called "New Yorker school" of writing. Ben Yagoda devotes a long section to Updike in his recent study of that magazine’s development under its founding and second editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn. Yagoda treats Updike as one of the defining literary discoveries of Shawn’s New Yorker. John Cheever, who had begun to write for the magazine under Ross, may have become the quintessential New Yorker writer of the fifties and sixties. But his successor in that role -- if anyone was his successor -- was surely Updike. William Maxwell, for a long time one of the magazine’s senior fiction editors, seems to have anointed Updike early, placing him in the direct line of apostolic succession when the two men met at The New Yorker’s offices. This meeting took place soon after Updike’s graduation from Harvard College and before he went off to art school in England. At this time, Updike still saw himself as an artist. But he was about to begin placing words, not art, in the pages of the magazine.
After his return from England, as a young staff writer at the magazine, Updike wrote for "Talk of the Town," the magazine’s "front matter." He also published poetry and began publishing the short stories on which his early reputation was based. In 1958, at the age of twenty-six, he published The Carpentered Hen, a collection of poems and his first book. In 1959, he published both The Same Door, a book of short stories, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. In 1960, he published the first Rabbit Angstrom novel, Rabbit, Run -- it was an event. In 1962, aged thirty, he published his second book of short stories, Pigeon Feathers, the collection from which my opening quotation comes.
To have published five books by the time one is thirty surely constitutes a fairly impressive and quite substantial debut, as literary debuts go. But even apart from their number and variety these books made news. Rabbit, Run really was an event. A college student the year it appeared, I remember it very well. I also remember that the book appealed to -- or, at least, was recommended to me by -- a kind of person whom I callowly regarded as, whatever else he might be, a purveyor of proper books for proper people. Perhaps as a result, I loathed Rabbit when I read it in 1960 or 1961, and Updike became, for me, at any rate, something of a dead letter. He seemed a writer, since I was not proper, of books intended for other readers than me, with other standards than mine.
But this is not the Updike (or more precisely not the only or the most important Updike) to have entered America’s cultural imagination. "The sexual revolution disrupted and enriched the middle of Updike’s writing career," Nicholson Baker reminds any of his readers who might still be unaware of that development. What he means is that "Updike’s sweetly graphic sexual infidelities," as Baker calls them -- "the theme of suburban adultery that has occupied him since Marry Me" -- has yielded a body of work that is, as Baker writes in language characterized by some pretty earthy bluntness of its own, not at all "proper":
lively and shocking and un-Emersonian writing about nakedness, fucking in piles of laundry, pubic hair like seaweed, dirty Polaroids, his next-door neighbor’s pussy, and the rest.
Baker dates these developments to Updike's 1976 novel, Marry Me. In fact, Baker is wrong: their spoor may be traced considerably earlier in Updike's published work than that. David Allyn, an American historian, has recently published a major study of the American sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. There he writes:
In whatever form, swinging was a much-discussed phenomenon in the late sixties and early seventies. John Updike's 1968 novel Couples [published eight years before Marry Me] was a dark portrayal of mate-swapping in a quiet New England town.
In the wake of Couples, Updike played a significant role in expanding the possibilities for the literary expression of this sexual revolution. Baker, for instance, notes the impact on other writers of what he calls, a bit indecorously, "Updike’s wide-screen description of a neighbor’s pussy." We may no longer be astonished by any of this, so vastly different has the literary landscape we inhabit become from that in which Updike was to make such a splash. But as recently, for Updike, as 1957, James Gould Cozzens had created a now almost unbelievable uproar over his use, in By Love Possessed, of the word "fuck." Not even Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead, had felt free to use that word in print -- and The Naked and the Dead is a war novel.
Updike himself, in conversation with Helen Vendler, once explained at least a part of the reasons that underlay this massive shift in his work. It represents a shift both of direction and of ethos:
I think [he told Vendler] taste is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.
Updike thus depicts this shift as a deliberate but also as an individual literary decision, without recalling that many of his contemporaries were also making similar shifts as they accommodated themselves to the new legal and moral environment of the 1960s that made sexually explicit language and description possible. Not all were as successful as he. Only with terrific embarrassment -- over the writer's ineptitude, not because of the subject -- would a reader today encounter such fumbling efforts to take advantage of this new freedom of sexual representation as, for example, John O’Hara's in his 1969 Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story, or James Jones's in his even later Whistle of 1978. They did it, but they didn't really know how to do it. The "annus mirabilis" had indeed come, but -- as Philip Larkin once said in a slightly different connection -- too late for them. By contrast, Updike thought about it and then did it, doing so in a way that, for better or worse, opened up new, previously unimagined possibilities of sexual expression for America’s genteel writers and genteel traditions.
I might, by the way, have used the word "gentile" in those two places. Updike himself, playing over many years with the "mirror"-character of Henry Bech, is acutely aware of how un-waspish his literary behavior has been. He has changed the face of American letters, in this particular way, under the very straight and very patrician noses of those whom he otherwise so well represents.
What this long prologue ought to make clear is how odd a choice Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet is as a subject of novelistic interest for the person who made himself, in poem, short story, and novel, the American laureate of suburban adultery and divorce. Say what you will about Shakespeare’s play: its attractions, such as they are, do not in these directions lie.
But Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius is not about Hamlet. The prince is, if anything, even more incidental to Updike’s novel than he is to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a dramatic meditation on Hamlet as viewed from behind the arras. Nor is the absence of the prince the only feature that distinguishes Updike’s work from its very different putative source.
Formally, Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy. It is not, like several plays contemporary with Shakespeare (for example, the anonymous Arden of Feversham or Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness), a tragedy of suburban adultery and familial dissolution. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy and is anything other than merely familial or suburban in its scope. Its action results in major changes at the leadership levels of the state. Its world is characterized by fundamental uncertainties about the moral nature of the universe. The play’s action -- or, perhaps, its inaction -- is, most significantly, internal. One reason for Hamlet’s -- the character Hamlet’s -- ongoing fascination for audiences and readers is Shakespeare’s ability to convey the illusion that we have somehow come to "know" him during the course of the play. His soliloquies make audiences and readers alike privy to his "inner thoughts" -- in fact, they delude us into thinking that he has "inner thoughts," rather than the words, and no more than the words, that the playwright has assigned the actor who plays him.
Updike’s novel is something very different indeed. One might even call it (and for the nonce I will) not a tragedy but a comedy. Moreover, Gertrude and Claudius is a novel not of inaction but rather of a great deal of action. A royal father marries off his princess daughter to an appropriate suitor. That suitor eventually becomes king in his own right. His wife, the old king’s daughter, gives birth to his son and heir. Aided and abetted by one of his principal court advisors, she embarks on a clandestine affair with her husband’s warrior brother. That brother, recklessly in love with his brother’s -- his sovereign’s -- wife, a double crime, and, what is worse, discovered by his sovereign to be in love with her, decides on an instant to escape the consequences of discovery. He murders the King, his brother, pouring poison in his ear while he sleeps. He then marries the not-so-grieving widow. Long his mistress, she now becomes his happy wife. As the novel ends, the couple’s only concern is to win over the affections of her somewhat alienated son. The very nearly unfathomable but remarkably attractive interiority that is so distinctive a feature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not at all so intense in Updike’s Elsinore, although it is by no means absent from the novel. The Queen especially acts most often on whim. She is often not quite clear about what she is doing or why she is doing it. Her actions and her life pass before her as if they were a kind of dream.
Perhaps, then, the single most important point to make, looking at Updike’s novel against the looming backdrop of the play its author has based it in, is that these very different works evoke very different imagined worlds. Updike ends his novel when Shakespeare’s play opens. On its last page, the reader hears Hamlet say, "I shall in all my best obey you." "Why, ’tis a loving and a fair reply," Claudius immediately responds, words all readers remember. But readers and audiences remember this scene as part of the play’s beginning. Here it is not that at all. In fact, what follows this exchange between royal father and grieving stepson is Updike’s very last paragraph. "The era of Claudius had dawned," it begins; and it ends, in the conditional mood that a modern reader understands but which, in the novel, can only go unremarked, "All would be well." Thus Updike’s book apparently ends as comedy. The tragedy its reader expects remains off-stage, off-page, out of view.
What has happened here is an essential transformation that makes of Hamlet not only the basis for something very different from the play but also something that seems much more familiar and easy to take than the play. Using Shakespeare as the basis for a novelistic "prequel" to the tragedy, Updike seems to have metamorphosed Hamlet into a minor comedic variation, set in a fictional past, of the theme of suburban adultery that he has long been master of.
Gerutha -- "Gertrude" in Saxo Grammaticus’s original version of the Hamlet story -- is a "plump sixteen" when the reader meets her on the novel’s first page, as her father tells her that she is about to marry Horwendil ("King Hamlet," as Shakespeare knows him, the father of the melancholy Prince). The marriage is not one the young Gerutha covets. She finds Horwendil "unsubtle."
In our fleeting contacts [Gerutha continues, as she speaks with her father], Horwendil has treated me with an unfeeling, standard courtesy -- as a court ornament whose real worth derives from my kinship with you. Or else he has looked through me entirely, with eyes that see only the rivalrous doings of other men.
Time does not do much to alter these less-then-favorable initial impressions. Gerutha, of course, has no choice but to obey her father. Updike has not modernized his source’s world; in fact, he has made it less "renaissance-ey" than Shakespeare’s quite un-medieval Elsinore, where Hamlet could be depicted as a university student at that hotbed of radical and newfangled religious thought, Wittenberg. Updike’s setting is medieval Denmark. Gerutha’s father is a king and she is a marriageable bartering chip in the world of court politics. Thus the wedding takes place, as planned. But not all plans are thereby satisfied.
The wedding night itself is a disaster, and a disaster of a most -- for what we expect of this genre -- surprising kind. The ceremonies and the wedding feast over, Gerutha and Horwendil repair to their bedroom. "Readily Gerutha shed her heavy hooded cloak" and her other garments; then a servant woman helps her to undo "laces and cord belt and wrist ties,"
leaving it to her, in Horwendil’s company alone, to shed the camise. This she did, stepping from the cast-off cloth as from a cleansing pool.
By the snapping firelight her nakedness felt like a film of thin metal, an ultimate angelic costume. From throat to ankles her skin had never seen the sun. Gerutha was as white as an onion, as smooth as a root fresh-pulled from the earth. She was intact. This beautiful intactness, her life’s treasure, she roused herself -- betranced before the leaping fire, the tips of her falling hair reflecting its hearthbound fury -- to bestow, as decreed by man and God, upon her husband. She was aroused. She turned to show Horwendil her pure front, vulnerable as his had been when he had bared it, for a famous dangerous moment, to the possibility of Koll’s thrust [Koll was a Norse enemy of the Danes whom Horwendil had slain in hand-to-hand combat].
He was asleep.
It is not an auspicious start to the marriage. Gerutha never forgets or entirely forgives what she takes to be this incontrovertible and inexcusable evidence of Horwendil’s deep lack of sexual interest in her.
As the years progress, he becomes increasingly involved with affairs of state. So, too, their only child, the young Prince Hamlet, becomes increasingly aloof from his mother ("Amleth for his part found her milk sour" even as a baby). Increasingly, Gerutha seeks solace in long conversations with Horwendil’s brother, the wandering knight and warrior Feng, whenever he happens to be back from the south visiting Elsinore. And then, not surprisingly -- although only after many years and, in book terms, many pages -- their conversation turns into something else:
. . . he lifted up the clinging tunic, and the chemise, its ties undone, came off with it. Geruthe [Updike has changed the form of her name from Saxo’s Gerutha to Belleforest’s Geruthe in Part Two; similarly, Horwendil becomes Horvendile and Feng becomes Fengon] pressed her rosy ripeness into the abrasions of Fengon’s rough clothes. His riding shirt had leather shoulders to cushion mail. "Protect me," she whispered, adhering tight against him as if for concealment, her lips seeking the gap in his bristling wet beard.
This consummation has been a long time a-coming, awaiting the reader’s arrival at page one hundred and twenty-eight. It is followed, on the same page, by what must be some of the most economic foreshadowing in all of literature, these economies made possible by Updike’s assurance that his readers know (or think they know) what’s coming:
Afterwards, she toyed with the long bronze pins, skewers for her hair, and held one to his naked chest as he lay beside her in the bed. With the point of the other she dimpled the white skin between her heavy breasts. "We could make an end now," she suggested, her eyes, widened and softened by love, sly with the possibility.
Fengon in his limp state considered her offer. Such a further and ultimate relaxation would conveniently crown his triumph. Gently he lifted the skewers from her grip, pinched the flesh beneath her chin, and weighed a warm breast in his palm. "I fear we have too much of our fathers in our natures," he said, "to give the world so easy a victory."
Is there any reader who does not know with utter certainty what a mistake this decision is, and what misjudged pride it conceals?
And is there any need to pass, however lightly, through the rest of Updike’s tale? On the other hand, I think it worth noticing that Updike’s use of his -- and of Shakespeare’s -- sources is not only imaginative but also strategic. For the novelist who would retell the Hamlet story, one major difficulty is the paucity of readers who will find it surprising, suspenseful, or (as a result) interesting. Readers know it. Shakespeare did it already. The chances that you will do it better, while perhaps not non-existent, are not likely to be high. One of Updike’s methods of getting around such difficulties is mentioned above, and is perfectly obvious in any event. He does not retell Hamlet. He writes instead about events that reach their own conclusion just as Shakespeare’s play, and its different events, begin.
In addition, however, he also starts out by distancing his reader from the play’s familiar characters by adopting for them the names that Shakespeare’s sources used. "Gerutha/Geruthe," "Feng/Fengon," "Horwendil/Horvendile," "Corambus/Corambis," "Amleth/Hamblet" -- these are, but also they are not, people we already know: Gertrude, Claudius, King Hamlet, Polonius, Hamlet. Their origins and motives in the Shakespearian play where we remember previously to have met them, or characters very much like them, were never very clear to begin with. Except for Hamlet, they were not at the center of that play anyway; and in it even Hamlet’s motives for action (or inaction) were very far from clear. These odd names alone introduce an element of necessary strangeness. Updike’s detailed depiction of the physical and mental worlds evoked not by Shakespeare but rather by Saxo and Belleforest add to a reader’s bemusement; and from such bemusement, perhaps, interest depends.
Yet as the language shifts -- "Gerutha" in Part One, "Geruthe" in Part Two, "Gertrude" in Part Three -- Updike moves his reader inexorably closer and closer to the familiar Shakespearian names and the familiar Shakespearian world. Onomastics and temporality prove to be functionally related to one another in Updike’s fictional universe. The reader comes closer and closer to Shakespeare’s "now," not simply by virtue of turning pages and moving forward in the tale of Gertrude’s loves, but also (and almost subliminally) by sensing the ever-increasing "modernity" of the characters’ names. The initial distance that the old forms of those names initially established makes a reader feel increasingly threatened, as names become increasingly familiar and, in Part Three, known, and as that distance rapidly diminishes.
Updike also evidences other research that proves specifically important for this novel. In an especially funny -- and, simultaneously and poignantly, not very funny -- section of U & I, Nicholson Baker remarks that Updike "writes better than I do and he is smarter than I am." One indication of his smartness is the use he makes of the research that has gone into the building of Gertrude and Claudius. Updike cites the sources; he uses them; he knows them. He mentions how important he found Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of the play. Branagh’s happens to be a Hamlet I find deeply flawed. But Updike picks out some specific aspects of it for praise -- "a revivified image of the play and of certain offstage characters such as Yorick and King Hamlet" -- and, looking at that short list, it immediately becomes clear that he has used the movie cleverly as one more imaginative prod.
Updike mentions two, and only two, works of criticism. One is a 1948 study by Salvador de Madariaga, On Hamlet. Updike thanks de Madariaga for his list of "some of the play’s many careless inconsistencies." Clearly, these are matters for which a modern audience has little tolerance; the list has helped him to work around the problems they conceal.
Second is "the wholly positive and enthusiastic exposition of the play" in William Kerrigan’s 1994 Hamlet’s Perfection. Critically retrograde, this is a book which, did it not summarize, sometimes fairly, a good deal of previous work on Hamlet, it would be difficult to understand Updike using. If for no other reason, its relentless praise of the play seems inapposite, at least to my eye, to the kind of novel I think Updike set out to write. But Baker is correct: Updike is smart, and the one thing he tells his reader he has taken from this not very good book is exactly the thing he should have taken from it:
[Kerrigan, Updike writes,] contains this haunting summary of G. Wilson Knight’s reading [of Hamlet] in The Wheel of Fire . . . :
Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counsellor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death.
Death: this is what hangs over Shakespeare’s play, and -- despite the formally comedic ending of Gertrude and Claudius -- it hangs over Updike’s novel, as well. I have already mentioned the peculiar, though rejected, proposal of mutual suicide that follows the satiation of Geruthe and Fengon’s mutual lust, or love (and is there a difference?). But here is another, if very different, example. Gerutha and Corambus -- their names in Part One -- have been speaking, dangerously, about Gerutha’s unhappiness in her marriage with Horwendil. Rebuking Gerutha for her "spiritual heaviness," Corambus then "bowed his way out, leaving Gerutha to her days."
O the days, the days in their all but unnoticed beauty and variety -- days of hurtling sun and shade like the dapples of an exhilarated beast, days of steady strong cold and a blood-red dusk, tawny autumn days smelling of hay and grapes, spring days tasting of salty wave-froth and of hearth-smoke blown down from the chimney pots, misted days of sifted sunshine and gentle fitful rain that glistened and purred on the windowsill like a silvery cat, days of luxurious tall clouds that brought thunder east from Jutland, days when the shoreline of Skåne lay vivid as a purple hem upon the Sund’s rippling breadth, days of high ribbed skies like an angel’s carcass, December days of howling sideways snow, March days of hail from the north like an angry knocking at the door, June days when greenness smothered every vista, days without qualities, days with a hole in the middle, days that never knew their own mind and ended in insomnia, days of travel, days of ceremony when she and Horwendil were fixed in place like figures beaten in brass or else overanimated like actors, dancing through sheets of candlelight and forests of food, wash days when amid laughter and lye she slaved with the red-handed wenches in thrall to Elsinore, sick days when she floated in a fever and received a parade of soft-spoken visitors one of whom might be faceless Death taking her to join [King] Rorik [her father] and Marlgar and Ona, Ona [her mother] who had died when younger than she, and then days of tender recovery, days when beech trees were in long red bud and the willows yellow, days when a serving-girl dropped a stillborn child, days when Horwendil was absent, days when she and he had made love the night before, days when she ate too much, Days when she light-headedly fasted, days that began with the Sund glazed like a lake a mercury beneath a pearly dawn, days when wind whipped spray from wild waves like flares of white fire, menstrual days, saints’ days -- the days passed, and Gerutha felt them stealing away with her life, all the while that she moved through such activities and engagements as befitted a Scandinavian queen, helpmate to a handsome blond king who with the years grew ever more admirable and remote, as if enlarging as he receded from her.
The elegiac quality of this very long passage -- and, though it is long, it is but a single sentence that constitutes an entire paragraph -- needs hardly to be emphasized. The figure of Death is in it. Even more transparent is Gerutha’s sense of the flight of her days, of her life, of "Time’s wingèd chariot" hurrying near. What is this passage doing here, in this formal comedy?
It is easy to forget that Updike, although unlike Shakespeare he is quite literally "our contemporary," is sixty-eight years old. Educated in an earlier and a different time, he is thus our contemporary and not our contemporary. In fact, he comes out of a period that, remembering it from its tail-end, I am just old enough to recall as obsessed -- I think I am using that word literally here -- obsessed with the idea of "tragedy." Richard B. Sewell’s 1950 The Vision of Tragedy; studies by T. R. Henn, Herbert Weisinger, Walter Kaufmann (with whom Updike, an avid reader of Kierkegaard and other nineteenth-century religious thinkers, might well have been familiar); and perhaps most important of all George Steiner’s 1961 The Death of Tragedy -- these, together with a whole boatload of additional studies, defined the ways in which an entire generation of students was taught to think about what constituted the "serious" in literature. Updike is unlikely completely to have escaped such early training and breaking in, especially in view of his religious interests. Religious studies in mid-century were often seen as closely related to literary interests in "the tragic sense of life."
What makes Gertrude and Claudius so interesting a book for me, and so successful, is not only the vivacity of its characters, and the -- for me, uncharacteristically -- generous view their author takes of them, although these are welcome and valuable. But also this book brings back into play a literary use of the tragic view of life I had thought long since dead, along with the era that produced it. Updike does this in what is, when all is said and done, a formal comedy. His tragedy enters through the back door, but -- wittily; marvelously -- that "back door" is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
2. Nicholson Baker, U & I: A True Story (1991; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1992), p. 13.
3. Baker, p. 110.
4. Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (New York: Scribner, 2000), pp. TK.
5. Baker, p. 118.
6. Baker, p. 87.
7. Baker, p. 75.
8. Baker, p. 18.
9. David Allyn, Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000), p. 208. I suspect that Baker's "mistake" is due to his having read "fewer than twenty pages" of Couples (see U & I, pp. 30-31).
10. Baker, p. 138.
11. Baker, p. 58.
12. John Updike, Gertrude and Claudius (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. 210 (hereafter cited as G&C).
13. G&C, pp. 3-4.
14. In his extremely perceptive review of the novel, Stephen Greenblatt writes: "Updike's story has virtually nothing to do with the underlying themes and values of the medieval account." A bit later, he speaks of Updike's Gertrude as "a Danish Emma Bovary." I think he somewhat underestimates Updike's "medievalism" in G&C, especially in comparison to Shakespeare's more "modern" approach in Hamlet. See "With Dirge in Marriage," The New Republic (February 21, 2000), pp. 36, 37.
15. G&C, pp. 24-25.
16. G&C, p. 34.
17. G&C, p. 128.
18. Greenblatt finds "not enough of a payoff" to justify these name changes, though he sees them as intended to make the same sort of point I have suggested here ("With Dirge in Marriage," p. 36.
19. Baker, p. 130 (the italics are Baker's).
20. G&C, p. 211.
21. William Kerrigan, Hamlet's Perfection (1994; rpt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
22. G&C "contradicts the vision that dominates Hamlet," according to Greenblatt ("With Dirge in Marriage," p. 38).
23. G&C, pp. 211-212.
24. G&C, pp. 45-47.
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